RECIFE, Brazil – The U.S. was 30 seconds away from safety.
Instead, thanks to a rapid succession of untimely miscues and an inch-perfect cross from Cristiano Ronaldo, the Americans’ World Cup fate remains uncertain heading into Thursday’s showdown with Germany.
Fortunes change quickly at the World Cup.
"This is razor-thin stuff,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said here on Wednesday. “And it’s true for everybody.”
Speaking at the Arena Pernambuco, the site of the Thursday’s Group G climax, Gulati said that his evaluation of coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. national team program hinged on more than just the outcome of three tense, tight games at the World Cup. He’s looking at the bigger picture, and there, the president likes what he sees. The Americans’ performance on the field in Brazil is just one of several indications, Gulati said, that signing Klinsmann to a four-year contract months prior to the World Cup was the right decision.
“It’s not just about a game or the result,” Gulati said. “It’s about everything we are seeing, where the program is heading, the message that’s going out from top to bottom."
When Klinsmann signed the new deal in December he also became the U.S. Soccer Federation’s technical director, which allows him to oversee player and youth national team development and coaching education throughout the country. It’s a big mandate and a big responsibility – one that will require more than three years on the job. Klinsmann was hired as national team coach in 2011.
"It’s about player development, and you will see Jurgen more involved in those sorts of things in this next cycle, partly because [in 2015] we are not in [World Cup] qualifying … We’re pleased with the way all of those things are going -- the technical director side of things as well. And we decided that, even given the risks of three important games, that we were willing to make that commitment,” Gulati continued.
“We’ve gotten almost everything we would have hoped for. We’ve got the best record the team has ever had over a two-year period with any coach. We’ve won the [CONCACAF] Gold Cup. We finished top in qualifying. And we are sitting in position to finish first in the group at the World Cup.”
Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley, also won a Gold Cup, finished atop the qualifying standings and won his group at the World Cup. Before him, Bruce Arena claimed two Gold Cup titles and took the U.S. to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. But this run feels different, Gulati implied, in part because of the attention Klinsmann’s team commands.
“We have a lot of people talking saying ‘Wow’ and people getting excited, and Jurgen is also part of that,” Gulati said. “There is certainly a lot more interest in the team then there’s ever been, and, frankly, there’s a lot more interest in him than there’s ever been in any coach we’ve had … that’s pretty obvious to us as well. He’s unique in that way – and that’s partly the German-American issue, it's partly the American family, it’s partly who he is as a coach, who he was as a player -- all of those things.”
The force of Klinsmann’s personality has made a difference in the locker room and out, Gulati said.
“If we hadn’t had the last 20 years, I don’t think Jurgen could have walked in and had the success he’s had on the field. So this has been a process. What Bruce did with the team over his tenure, what Bob Bradley took us to a level that we hadn’t been at, this is now taking us to another level in terms of the whole picture. So I think It’s a number of things. Maybe not the missing piece, but I think one of the things I often talk about when I talk about Jurgen or think about Jurgen: he exudes confidence,” Gulati said.
“I walked into a room with Jurgen when we [interviewed] him, and as you know that was more than a few times, and you come out of that room believing you can win the World Cup. And he never says ‘You’re going to win the World Cup’. But he’s just so confident about it, and I think that’s extraordinary and I think that fits perfectly with the American mentality, which is, ‘We can.’”
He may project that confidence behind closed doors, but Klinsmann hasn't been shy about expressing his lack of belief that the U.S. can, in fact, win the World Cup. He said as much to The New York Times in December and then reiterated his point while in Brazil. According to Gulati, however, Klinsmann has always believed he could navigate his side through the treacherous Group G.
Gulati recalled that as soon as the World Cup draw ended in December and the U.S. had been placed in a ‘Group of Death’ with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the manager said that his team would survive it.
“He meant it, and he believed it,” Gulati said. “The confidence and the exuberance. Yeah, absolutely. And the experience. The experience. When you walk into a room and you’ve got a guy with a World Cup medal around his neck, you’ve got to at least listen to what he says the first time.”
Gulati said that exuberance has carried over to the team, which is playing with confidence and no longer overawed by the sport’s big names.
“I think for the first time in our history, recent history, I’m not going to talk about 1950 or before, our players believe they are capable of beating anyone. That doesn’t mean we think we’re the favorites in any game, but we’re capable of beating anyone and our players, our coach, we all believe that. I think our players demonstrated that that’s the case,” Gulati said.
“It’s no longer the perception of, let’s say, 20 years ago: ‘Yeah, but we know the U.S. will fight and they’re strong and they’re fast and they’ll keep working.’ Now, especially after that Portugal game, people are saying, ‘Wow, they played.’ So I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. In the end, to keep those perceptions moving in the right direction, you’ve got to get results. The perceptions would have been a lot better if we held on to the win [against Portugal], but I don’t think anyone has underestimated us for a long time … I think now people are not just saying [there’s] delight when you get drawn with he U.S. They’re saying ‘This is a real team.’ And there’s no doubt the perceptions have changed.”
Gulati’s sense of that progression, those perceptions and the national team’s burgeoning popularity in the U.S. leave him confident that renewing Klinsmann was the right call.
“The narrative that is consistent and constant is that the sport’s in a different place,” he said. “What’s going on back home is completely different than it was even four years ago. It’s as if we’ve had 10 consecutive nights of Landon’s goal [against Algeria]. And that means the sport is in a different place. Will that trend line be a little higher and little steeper if we get through [Germany]? The answer’s ‘yes.’ And we are confident that will happen.”